Ghost Variations

By Jessica Duchen

The strangest detective story in the history of music

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


Dear friends,

I hope you've had an excellent bank holiday. I'm up to my eyeballs in the second edit at the moment, so not having a break, though I'm in need of one. 

Our A to Z of Ghost Variations continues today with G. Which is easy. Or is it?

First: there aren't ghosts. If you think Schumann is going to loom forth amid a fount of ectoplasm, you'll be disappointed. There are messages. Moving glasses. But whether these are a sign of ghosts...that all depends. What's very real, however, is the piano piece by Schumann entitled Geistervariationen. It was written just before the composer's incarceration in the mental hospital at Endenich. It is a short and extremely beautiful set of variations on a theme that the ailing man, who by then was suffering the disastrous effects of tertiary syphilis, believed had been dictated to him in his sleep by the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert. (Mendelssohn was a close friend of Schumann's. And Schubert: the composer whom Schumann's devoted efforts helped to establish in the public eye many years after the former's untimely death. That's a story in itself.) The theme shares part of its idea with the slow movement of the Violin Concerto; it seems he'd forgotten he had already written, or tried to write it, himself. But Tovey, in his lengthy letter to The Times about the Violin Concerto, is careful to point out that the theme is by no means identical.

In February 1854 Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. The next day he gave the manuscript of the variations to Clara. It is hardly surprising if she didn't want to publish them. Johannes Brahms, the Schumanns' young devotee, rescued the theme and wrote his own variations on it, for piano duet; but other than knowing from his title that the theme was by Schumann, nobody would have known where it came from...until the Violin Concerto emerged into the daylight. The Variations were published in 1939, the year after the concerto.

Above, listen to the great Grigory Sokolov playing them.

H is for... HITLER
Oh dear. But it's true: the official modern world premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto was staged in front of Adolf Hitler himself. It was 26 November 1937 and Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, had conscripted the unknown work to parade it as a great German work by a great German Aryan composer - the idea being that it should replace in public affection the Mendelssohn concerto (the most popular in the country), which had been banned. The concerto formed the centrepiece of a noon concert at the opera house in Charlottenburg under the auspices of Kraft durch Freude - Art through Joy - an organisation which was the artistic branch of the Third Reich's state-funded trade unions. Its aim was to take music out of its intimidating, elitist, traditional format and bring it to the people in places like factories and local spaces, shorten the programmes, include other things such as recitations and audience participation, start at more friendly times of day, and bring art to the people. (Sound familiar? Food for thought...) Goebbels stage-managed the whole thing - and made a speech - and Georg Kulenkampff was the soloist, another 'real' German, as opposed to the two other violinists who were after the Schumann, Yehudi Menuhin and Jelly, who was at least partly Jewish herself. And there was Hitler, listening. 

Jelly, obviously, was not there. We do, however, have a second vantage point: one Ulli Schultheiss, of whom more in due course. Ulli is fictional, and he fills in a few sizeable missing links. Being German and an employee of a vital music publisher, he provides us with an insight on activities in Germany that otherwise we wouldn't "see" in the novel. He is highly sympathetic - personable, idealistic, charming, devoted to his mum and a former student of Artur Schnabel. 

I is for...'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai'
I played you this wonderful Schumann song a few blogposts ago. It's the first song in Schumann's Dichterliebe and Ulli recites the words, by Heinrich Heine, to Jelly. There is a little game embedded in the book, which of course you can choose to play or not. You will be asked to pick out all the references in the text to Dichterliebe and send them to me via my author Facebook page by a certain date. We'll put the names of the correct entrants into a hat and draw out three winners, and there'll be prizes. Watch this space!

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards

27 pledges

Ebook Only

A copy of the ebook in all three DRM-free, standard formats (.epub, .mobi and PDF)

Buy now
65 pledges


Ebook edition and your name in the list of patrons in the back of the ebook